Pepper Martin: baseball’s leap day legend

By the time Johnny Leonard Roosevelt Martin had celebrated his sixth birthday, the Oklahoma native had not only made it to the Major Leagues but hit for a .300 average, led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Championship and turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history.

Of course, Martin, who went by the nickname “Pepper,” was only six years old in the sense that he was born on a Leap Day, Feb. 29, 1904. That meant that by the time he helped the Cardinals defeat the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1931 World Series, his “true” birthday had occurred just six times.

In reality, Pepper Martin was a 27-year-old standout that year, at the start of a prolific career with the Redbirds that would include two world titles and four All-Star appearances.

Called the Wild Horse of the Osage for his aggressive style of play, Martin attacked the game with a style similar to Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, though injuries prevented him from enjoying the lengthier career of either of the latter two players, both Hall of Famers.

A key member of the Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang that included such standouts as Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher, Martin posted a career .298 batting average and a .443 slugging percentage.

Perhaps his greatest season was his first full campaign in the big leagues, 1931.

Despite beginning the season on the bench, Martin took over as a starter midway through the year and ended with a .300 batting average, seven home runs and 75 runs batted in to help the Cardinals clinch the 1931 National League pennant by 13 games over the New York Giants.

The 1931 Series was a rematch of the 1930 championship, pitting the Cardinals against a powerful Athletics squad that had two consecutive crowns to its credit and a lineup that featured five future Hall of Famers: Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Waite Hoyt and Al Simmons.

Martin proved the difference as the Cardinals outlasted the Athletics in the best-of-seven series, 4-3.

He set a World Series record with 12 hits, including four doubles and a home run, and he stole five bases and knocked in five runs.

Without him, the Cardinals batted for just .205 as a team, and longtime Major League manager John McGraw described Martin’s effort as “the greatest individual performance in the history of the World Series.”

Even long ago when ballplayers were noted for often being less than polished, Martin stuck out. Not because he was stupid, but because he did things his own way.

Never an adept fielder, he played third base by sometimes allowing a hard-hit ground ball to strike him in the chest, then picked it up and fired it to first.

In lopsided games, Martin would reportedly throw at batters who bunted instead of attempting to throw them out at first.

He was noted for being one of the dirtiest players on record. Not dirty as in playing with a mean streak or breaking the rules, but as in literally being dirty while on the field.

He led the league in stolen bases three years and his head-first belly-flopping style of sliding into a base lent itself to a gritty, grimy exterior, which Martin seemed to revel in.

Famed baseball writer Red Smith once described Martin as “a rawboned, ungainly country boy who couldn’t play one inning without looking like something drug out of a potato field.”

Martin was noted for his offseason activities, as well, including hunting, fishing, playing basketball and football, and even taking part in midget car racing.

After his Major League career ended in the early 1940s, Martin managed a number of minor league teams, up into the 1960s. He died on March 5, 1965.

The newspapers reported his death as coming at the age of 61, but in reality, the Wild Horse of the Osage had celebrated just 15 birthdays since first appearing on the Oklahoma plains in 1904.

Either way, he got more than his share of living out of every day he was alive.

4 thoughts on “Pepper Martin: baseball’s leap day legend

    • I’ve gone back and read some of Red Smith’s columns. He certainly had a way with words, and baseball was probably the perfect venue for him, given the characters that were in the game when he was writing. Players today are probably too thin-skinned to appreciate someone with Smith’s abilities.

      Love the quote about track and field, too.

      Thanks for the note.

    • This photo is from the Internet. I’m guessing that it was originally taken by a newspaper or wire service photographer. Up through the at least the early 1940s, photographers were allowed in certain places on the field, such as near the on-deck circle and behind first base. This looks like a photo that would have been taken from the latter position.

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